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Additional Helpful Background
      Other Websites and Lesson Plans
      Historical Error in Amistad

Additional Discussion Questions:
      Subjects (Curriculum Topics)
      Social-Emotional Learning
      Moral-Ethical Emphasis
            (Character Counts)

Additional Assignments

Other Sections:
      Bridges To Reading
      Selected Awards & Cast

Go to the Learning Guide for this film.

Additional Helpful Background:


There are several sites on the Internet which provide excellent information on the case of the Amistad. They include:
Some of the original documents in the case are online at the National Archives National Archives. There is no need for this Learning Guide to restate the valuable information provided by these websites.

Some lesson plans already developed for this film are:

There are a number of articles on the web that discuss the many historical errors in the film: They include: Review of "Amistad" by Sally Hadden of Florida State University; What You Didn't See At The Movies:The Real Story ; and Amistad (Van Buren's Folly). See also Sanello, Reel v. Real: How Hollywood Turns Fact Into Fiction, Taylor Trade Publishing, 2003.

The changes which the movie makes to historical fact include the following:
The changes to the historical record described in the last two paragraphs of the Pre-Viewing Enrichment Worksheet.

There is no basis to believe that Mr. Tappan wanted the Amistad Africans sacrificed for the benefit of the abolitionist movement. The scene in which he proposes this was, most certainly, placed in the film to raise the question of whether the ends justify the means. Mr. Tappan's life was devoted to freeing captive slaves. "The Rev. Thomas F. Dipko [head of the United Church of Christ's Board of Homeland Ministries, which is a descendant of the organizations which grew out of the Amistad incident] regretted that the film made no mention of the Job-like plagues both [Tappan and his brother] suffered because of their abolitionist activities. Mobs attacked Lewis Tappan's dry-goods store, the largest in New York, and his brother Arthur's mansion. Arthur once found a slave's ear in a box in his mailbox. Insurance carriers canceled their policies after pro-slavery vigilantes put a price on the brothers' heads...." Sanello, above, at p. 86; See also Stamped With Glory: Lewis Tappan and the Africans of the Amistad by Doug Linder from Famous Trials.

The trial and legal proceedings are portrayed as something completely foreign to the Amistad Africans. However, most of the captives were Mende. In Africa, the Mende governed themselves under a democratic system which also had a highly developed judicial system. Judges and trials were something the Mende knew from home. Thus, by testifying in U.S. District Court, Cinque was not acting in an environment that was completely foreign to him.

The Amistad Africans were not represented by some fly-by-night lawyer scratching for a living but fighting the good fight alone. Several successful lawyers represented the captives. They were Roger Sherman Baldwin (later to become a U.S. Senator), Theodore Sedgwick, and Seth Staples (who later founded Yale's law school). Baldwin and Adams argued the case before the Supreme Court, with Mr. Baldwin making the arguments that the Court eventually adopted.

The film version of the argument before the Supreme Court misrepresents the real issues which were presented to the Court and on which it made its decision. The argument on behalf of the Amistad Africans and the decision of the Court focused on the legality of the slave trade on the high seas rather than, as shown in the movie, the captives' inalienable right to freedom.

The abolitionist Joadson is fictional as is the crypto-Catholic Judge Coughlin that President Van Buren allegedly hoped to improperly influence. This second fictional character was unnecessary because the judge who heard the case was initially anti-abolitionist and prejudiced against the Amistad Africans. However, through the course of the trial he changed his mind. This could have been made extremely dramatic but was ignored by the filmmakers.


Additional Discussion Questions:

Continued from the Learning Guide...

4.  Name two lasting effects of the Amistad incident on the United States. Suggested Response: First, the publicity over the fate of the Amistad Africans brought to the public's attention the logical fallacy of treating black people born in Africa as free, while blacks born in the U.S. were enslaved for life. This turned many in the North against slavery. The second lasting effect was that the committee of abolitionists formed to defend and care for the Amistad Africans stayed together and eventually became the American Missionary Association. The AMA lasted for one hundred years. It sent missionaries to Africa and founded hundreds of schools and ten colleges in the U.S. For more details, see Helpful Background Section.

5.  What was the legal basis cited by the Supreme Court to justify freeing the Amistad Africans? Suggested Response: The Africans on board the Amistad had been seized and transported to Cuba, a Spanish territory, after Spain had outlawed the slave trade. Spanish law governed their status and declared that they were free. The Court stated that:
They are natives of Africa, and were kidnapped there, and were unlawfully transported to Cuba, in violation of the laws and treaties of Spain, and the most solemn edicts and declarations of that government. By those laws, and treaties, and edicts, the African slave trade is utterly abolished; the dealing in that trade is deemed a heinous crime; and the negroes thereby introduced into the dominions of Spain, are declared to be free. The Amistad, 40 U.S. 518, 593.
6.  What was the basis for the claim presented in court by the American naval officers? Suggested Response: International maritime law provided that the officers and crew of a vessel that saved another ship on the high seas were entitled to a percentage of the value of the ship and of the goods on board. Both the U.S. Constitution and the federal courts recognized this principle. (The purpose of the right of salvage was to encourage ships to save other ships, a difficult and dangerous maneuver, particularly when ships were powered by sail.) The officers of the U.S. Navy brig Washington filed a salvage claim based on the value of the Amistad and the property that it carried, including the value of the "slaves". As to the value of the ship and the non-human property, the claim of the officers and crew was upheld by the courts. As to the Africans, the Supreme Court determined that the law of Spain controlled their status. The Court found that they had been captured and transported to Cuba in violation of Spanish law. It ruled that under Spanish law the Amistad Africans were free.

7.  Many abolitionists demanded that the Amistad Africans be freed because slavery itself was wrong. Why didn't the Supreme Court accept this argument? Give both a legal and political answer. Suggested Response: The legal answer is that slavery was sanctioned by law in the U.S. and the property rights of slaveholders were protected by U.S. law. The political reason was that most members of the Supreme Court were Southerners and were themselves slaveholders. Asking for a decision on the basis of Spanish law allowed them to do the right thing without challenging the legal basis for slavery all over the U.S. That would have raised a firestorm of protest and moved the Southern states toward secession.

8.  When the character of Cinque calls on his ancestors to help him with the hearing in the Supreme Court, he states that he was "the whole reason they have existed at all." What do you think of this belief? Suggested Response: In the movie Cinque is portrayed as believing in ancestor worship. This belief was based on a spiritual tie with his ancestors that was as real and strong as ties among living family members. He also appeared to believe that they had the power to help him in a trial in a land far away from their home. Ancestor worship is a characteristic of many religions, especially in Asia and Africa. Even modern science would recognize some truth to the statement made in the film. The biological role of any member of a species is to procreate and pass genes to his or her ancestors. So, as the Cinque character said, he was "the whole reason [his ancestors] have existed at all." However, the character of Cinque was referring to a more complete set of beliefs about his ancestors.

9.  In the movie the character of the Spanish Ambassador told the President Van Buren character that "If you cannot rule the courts, you cannot rule". How did the President Van Buren character respond? Do you agree? Suggested Response: The President Van Buren character said, "It is the independence of our courts that keeps us free." This is a true statement. However, there are many other institutions in government and in society which play a role in maintaining freedom. Examples include: a free press (see e.g. Learning Guide to "All the President's Men"); a constitution and laws which protect civil rights; citizens who participate in politics; free and fair elections; a legislative branch and an executive branch that respect the laws protecting civil rights; and a military that obeys the orders of civilian leaders even when they disagree with those orders (see e.g., Learning Guide to "Hotel Rwanda" and "Sometimes in April"). Note that in the movie, the President Van Buren character tries to improperly influence the court proceedings. We have found no historical basis for this subplot.

10.  Who was John Quincy Adams? Suggested Response: Adams was the son of the revolutionary era leader and second President of the United States, John Adams. John Quincy Adams served as a diplomat and Secretary of State under President James Monroe. Elected as the sixth President of the United States, he served one term from 1825-1829. Defeated by Andrew Jackson in his bid for a second term Mr. Adams retired to his farm. In 1830 a congressional district in Plymouth, Massachusetts, unexpectedly elected Mr. Adams to the House of Representatives. He served there for 18 years speaking his mind on the issues. He was an outspoken opponent of slavery. In 1848 President Adams died shortly after having suffered a stroke on the floor of the House.

11.  Why did the John C. Calhoun character suddenly come to dinner at the White House? What message was he trying to convey? Suggested Response: Even in 1839 the strained relations that eventually caused the Civil War were beginning to show. (Actually, they were evident during the Constitutional Convention.) Sensing that freedom for the Amistad Africans would show a fundamental flaw in the various defenses of slavery, the Calhoun character wanted to make the point that the South would object if the Amistad Africans were freed.

12.  The abolitionists aren't portrayed as very attractive people in this film. The Tappan character is a fanatic and the religious singers appear to the Africans to be unhappy people who waste time by singing and praying. Is this an accurate portrayal? In your answer discuss what the abolitionists in this film are doing with regard to the concept of "bearing witness". Suggested Response: See Helpful Background Section.

See the Social Emotional Learning Questions and the Ethics-Ethical Emphasis Discussion Questions below. See also Discussion Questions for Use With any Film that is a Work of Fiction.

Social-Emotional Learning Discussion Questions


1.  Remember the argument between Joadson [played by Morgan Freeman] and the Tappan character [the rich abolitionist]? The Tappan character claimed that the martyrdom of the Amistad Africans would be a small price to pay if it helped end slavery. Do you agree? Suggested Response: This is the age old argument of whether the ends justify the means. Generally, history has shown that people or countries who employ an "ends justify the means" logic often get into trouble. To be sure, slavery as practiced in the southern United States held millions in a brutal vise. It was not unusual for families to be separated or for women to be used as concubines or raped. Disobedient slaves and captured runaways were whipped, maimed or killed. But ignoring the need of the Amistad Africans for justice in order to make a case against slavery would have demeaned the prisoners' worth as human beings. No one knew if their martyrdom would help the movement to end slavery. As it turned out, the captives were given their freedom and the movement for abolition still received a tremendous boost. (Note that there is no evidence that the abolitionists did not care about the Amistad Africans. Nor is there any evidence that the real Mr. Tappan ever thought about sacrificing the prisoners to the greater good of ending slavery. His entire history, so far as we have been able to determine, was spent trying to free slaves.)

2.  The Africans of the Amistad won in court on the basis that Spain, whose law applied, had banned the slave trade and that the Amistad Africans had not been lawfully taken into slavery. While the court reached the right result by freeing the slaves, did it do so for the right reasons? What does this tell us about the U.S. justice system at that time? Suggested Response: From an ethical standpoint, the Supreme Court should have recognized that slavery was barbaric and criminal. It should have freed the Amistad Africans on that basis. Generally, until the Civil War, the U.S. justice system was complicit in the crimes of slavery. It denied that slaves were human beings who had the same rights as others. It recognized the property rights of slave owners. It is important to note that most of the judges on the Supreme Court that liberated the Amistad captives were Southerners who owned slaves. The Supreme Court in the Amistad opinion states that men are free unless some act of government enslaves them. The complicity of the courts with slavery was no different than most of the rest of the country, North and South. For example, Northern mills turned out cloth from cotton grown with slave labor. In order to keep the slave-holding border states in the Union, President Lincoln did not, at first, oppose slavery in the states in which it was already legal. It was not until the passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution in 1864 that slavery was outlawed throughout the United States.

3.  If the case of the Amistad Africans had been brought after the Civil War, which provisions of the constitution would have governed their fate? Suggested Response: The Thirteenth Amendment which prohibited slavery.

4.  Why did Queen Isabella want the Amistad Africans placed into Spanish custody? What would she have done with them and why does that make the result reached by the Supreme Court ironic? Suggested Response: The movie implies that Queen Isabella and the Spanish government would have given the captives to their "owners" to live out their lives as slaves. The irony is that Spain would not have enforced its own laws and that the U.S. Supreme Court used the laws of Spain to reach a result which the Spanish government didn't want.

5.  Do you agree with the President Van Buren character that justice for a few unlucky noncitizens should not be permitted to injure the broader interests of the United States in its desire for better relations with Spain? How does this reasoning relate to today's "war on terror"? Suggested Response: To avoid a problem in U.S. relations with Spain, President Van Buren wanted the Amistad Africans kept as slaves and returned to the Cubans. It is not right to allow foreign policy to be carried out at the expense of the freedom of others. Again, in this case the ends do not justify the means. As to the "war on terror", many argue that it is a different matter and that we need to use torture, secret prisons, imprisonment without trial and other tactics that are against the traditions of the U.S. in order to win. They point out that the rights of others are always sacrificed in war, even the right to life itself. Other assert that if we employ an "ends justify the means" rationale for our actions we will lose our souls. This is a great question for debate.

6.  Does slavery still exist today anywhere in the world? If so, name some geographic areas where slavery persists. Suggested Response: Slavery exists all over the world, despite the fact that it is illegal. By some estimates there are 100,000 - 150,000 people illegally enslaved in the U.S. See 21ST CENTURY SLAVES By Andrew Cockburn National Geographic; Sep 2003, Vol. 204 Issue 3, p2, quoting Kevin Bales.


7.  What is the right of insurrection? Does it still exist? Who has it? Suggested Response: The right of insurrection is a natural right of all people. It is the right to rise up and throw off an evil regime and more broadly, to take violent action against oppressors. The right of insurrection is recognized in the Declaration of Independence:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness -- That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its Foundation on such Principles, and organizing its Powers in such Form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

8.  Who acted courageously in this film? What were their courageous acts? Suggested Response: The Africans who took over the ship; the Abolitionists who fought for their rights; and the judge who went against the wishes of the President in ruling for the Amistad Africans.

Moral-Ethical Emphasis Discussion Questions (Character Counts)
(TeachWithMovies.com is a Character Counts "Six Pillars Partner"
and  uses The Six Pillars of Character to organize ethical principles.)

Discussion Questions Relating to Ethical Issues will facilitate the use of this film to teach ethical principles and critical viewing. Additional questions are set out below.

1.  Describe some of the essential moral failings of slavery. Suggested Response: Slavery takes away the inalienable rights of the slave to attempt to find "liberty and the pursuit of happiness." Sometimes, when the slaveholder kills the slave, the right to life is taken away. Slavery also corrupts the slaveholder. The record of the sexual exploitation of slave women in the U.S. South is evidence of this. The brutality which is necessary to keep slaves in line can be transferred to the way that slaveholders treat their own family and friends as well as the members of their own community.


(Treat others with respect; follow the Golden Rule; Be tolerant of differences; Use good manners, not bad language; Be considerate of the feelings of others; Don't threaten, hit or hurt anyone; Deal peacefully with anger, insults and disagreements)

2.  Do you think that the Africans on the Amistad acted ethically in trying to regain their freedom even if that meant killing some members of the crew? Answer this question using the analysis outlined in PRINCIPLED DECISION MAKING -- HOW TO GET THE RESULTS WE REALLY WANT, MAXIMIZE OUR STRENGTH AND POWER, AND BE PROUD OF OUR ACTIONS. Suggested Response: This ethical question is fairly simple to resolve. The value which is paramount for the captives is freedom. This is an important value for which people have fought countless times. The values for the captain and the crew (the other stakeholders) are to keep their own lives. This too is an important value. An additional value for the "owners" of the Africans is to keep their illegally obtained property. Keeping possession of contraband is not a very important value.

Looking at the first four ethical tests it is clear that there is a conflict. Three of them don't apply. The Golden Rule doesn't apply because the captives either would not imprison anyone or would expect kidnap victims to resist. The rule of disclosure does not mitigate against insurrection because the captives had no problem with other people knowing what they had done. The rule of universality doesn't forbid attacking the crew and taking over the ship because the captives on the Amistad would have no problem with all other illegally seized persons seeking their freedom. However, accepted principles of ethical behavior (at TWM we use Character Counts' Six Pillars of Character) are in conflict. The Pillar of Respect instructs us not to hurt other people.

So, we come down to a conflict between the value of being free (a crucially important value) and the ethical principle of not hurting others. However, since the crew and the "owners" have used force against the captives by imprisoning them, the right of the crew and the "owners" to be free from assault is severely compromised. They have created a situation in which the most effective way for the captives to gain freedom is to kill or injure them. Clearly in this conflict of values most people would say that it was an ethical decision for the captives to rebel. Mahatma Gandhi may have disagreed. (See Learning Guide to "Gandhi"). However, it appears that the Amistad Africans had no choice other than insurrection and violence, and that is the point.


(Be kind; Be compassionate and show you care; Express gratitude; Forgive others; Help people in need)

3.  Can a slave master ever really care about his slave, in the ethical sense of the word? Suggested Response: No. Caring means wanting what is best for the other person. Slavery is never best for the slave.


(Do your share to make your school and community better; Cooperate; Stay informed; vote; Be a good neighbor; Obey laws and rules; Respect authority; Protect the environment)

4.  Remember how some abolitionists would pray and sing religious songs in public outside of the building which in which the Amistad Africans had been imprisoned? Why were they praying in public? Suggested Response: They were "bearing witness" to the suffering of the Amistad Africans and of all slaves and to the need to end slavery. For more details, see Helpful Background Section.

5.  Which character in the film sacrificed his chances for advancement to help the Amistad Africans? Which of the Six Pillars of Character was he honoring? (His actions honor more than one Pillar.) Suggested Response: It was the judge who heard their case. He honored the Pillars of Trustworthiness, Responsibility, Citizenship and Caring.

Additional Assignments

Continued from the Learning Guide...

Many of the discussion questions set out above are good writing prompts.

  • Students could be asked to do a report on the prohibition of the international slave trade and the treaties which were involved in the case of the Amistad.
  • Students can research and write an essay on the historical errors in the film.
  • Students can write a report on the life of John Quincy Adams.
See also Assignments, Projects, and Activities for Use With any Film that is a Work of Fiction

Bridges to Reading:

Rebels Against Slavery, by Patricia and Frederick McKissack, is suitable for ages 11 and up.

Selected Awards, Cast and Director:

Selected Awards:  1998 Academy Awards Nominations: Best Supporting Actor (Hopkins); Cinematography; Best Music; Best Costume Design; 1998 Golden Globe Awards Nominations: Best Picture; Best Director (Spielberg); Best Actor (Hounsou) and Best Supporting Actor (Hopkins).

Featured Actors:  Djimon Hounsou, Morgan Freeman, Anthony Hopkins, Nigel Hawthorne and Matthew McConaughey.

Director:  Steven Spielberg.


In addition to websites which are linked in the Guide and selected film reviews listed on the Movie Review Query Engine, the following resources were consulted in the preparation of this Learning Guide:

  • Rebels Against Slavery, Patricia C. McKissack and Frederick L. McKissack, Scholastic, Inc., New York, 1996, for section on Mende society, pages 118 - 120; and
  • Reel v. Real: How Hollywood Turns Fact into Fiction by Frank Sanello, Taylor Trade Publishers, 2003, pp. 84 - 88.

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